From Mississippi to Chicago: Mother Rendell Celebrates 100th Birthday

BRIDGEVIEW, IL – Like the concentric circles of a tree, Josephine Rendell’s rings span across ten decades. She’s the matriarch of her family and the oldest member of the church her mother founded over 65 years ago. Her amazing life was celebrated Monday at her 100th birthday party at Moraine Court Supportive Living in Bridgeview, where Rendell has resided since 2018.

Visibly moved by the pink tablecloths covering the folding tables in the activity room, the elegant “Mother Rendell” stepped off the elevator to the applause of her cousins, church friends and the “beautiful seniors” of Moraine Court who came to celebrate her century of life.

Born July 25, 1922, in Jackson, Miss., Rendell was brought to the South Side of Chicago by her parents, Henry Beamon and Josephine Kimball, when she was nine months old. Part of the Great Migration of African Americans who came from the South to find a better life in northern cities, her father soon landed work as a cook at Michael Reese Hospital. He died when Rendell was young.

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Her mother remarried a fellow Jacksonian transplant, Richmond Sheriff, who worked for the post office in downtown Chicago. On the weekends, Richmond commuted to Champaign, where he was the minister of a church. The great gospel singer Mahailia Jackson frequently sang during services.

“The kids loved her so much,” she said.

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Rendell returned to Mississippi every summer to spend time with her grandmother, a country teacher at a Black school, who had a small farm. Although Rendell confronted the Jim Crow racism of the Deep South, their neighbors, both White and Black, would gather Sundays on her grandmother’s porch to get her opinion on the events of the day.

“My grandma worked me to death,” Rendell laughed in an interview the week before her party. “I seed to churn butter, feed chickens and slop hogs.”

Settling in Englewood with her mother and stepfather, Rendell attended DuSable High School, which she considers her best decade. She enjoyed swimming and ballroom dancing. Her favorite teacher was Mrs. Brook, who taught English. Rendell was also classmates with future Chicago mayor, Harold Washington.

“He was really comical,” she said. “He was a nice fella.”

After graduating from high school in 1941, Rendell went on to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“I was really born to paint,” Rendell said, who has become Moraine Court’s greatest artist and does the preliminary drawings for the supportive living community’s Sip and Paint parties.

As a young woman, Rendell danced the evenings away in the sprawling Savoy Ballroom at 4733 S. Parkway, with a check room that could accommodate 6,000 coats and hats and featured the nation’s top jazz artists, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

“I loved to jitterbug,” she said.

Once, while attending a play in downtown Chicago, Rendell met Cab Calloway, who gave her a hug. “I was hugging a celebrity,” she laughed.

She met her husband, Alton Rendell (he died 10 years ago), who worked for the Ford Motor assembly plant, at a house party. She didn’t like him at first.

“He kept picking at me,” she said. “I guess I finally gave in. He was a good and kind man.”

The couple settled at 63rd and Carpenter in Englewood and had a son, Alton Jr., who resides in Oceanside, Calif. The neighborhood was a major shopping area on the city’s South Side.

“The neighborhood was Jewish, Black and White,” Rendell said. “It was just like downtown Chicago. There was a Sears, Wieboldt’s, Moody Bookstore, and Montgomery Ward.”

She worked as a typist, first in a doctor’s office in the Pittsfield Building, and later, the I. Fish Furniture Store, because it allowed her to stay close to home while raising her son.

“That was one of the good jobs women could get back then,” Rendell said.

Her dynamic mother, also named Josephine, started the Home Mission Apostolic Church, gathering children from the community into their home. Rendell helped her mother teach the kids Bible verses and feeding them goodies.

“There were so many coming that we had to get a bigger place,” Rendell said.

The church moved to 58th Street and State Street. Today, the Home Mission Apostolic Church is based in Lansing. Rendell taught Sunday School for 30 years, rewarding students with gold dollar pieces when they successfully recited Bible verses. To this day, her former students, now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, still come up to her who remember the gold coins, including the pastor.

Warren G. Harding was President of the United States when she was born. Asked who her favorite president is today, Rendell’s face beams.

“Barack Obama.”

Throughout her lifetime, Rendell has witnessed many advances in technology. As much as she enjoyed listening to “The Shadow” on the radio, she considers the best invention to be television. “I Love Lucy” was always one of her favorite shows.

“We had something not only to listen to, but we could see them,” Rendell said. “When it comes to new inventions such as social media, I don’t fool with it.”

She’s a few days older than the innovative TV producer Norman Lear, who also celebrates his 100th birthday this week, and four years Queen Elizabeth’s senior. She loves the church, children and serving Jesus Christ. Rendell attributes her longevity and good health to the love of the Lord and spending time at her church home.

“Reading the Bible just soothes me,” she said.

Her advice to young people and to her younger self is to “stick with the Lord, the only one that will bring her through,” and not to marry too young.

“Wait until you know more.”

Her most desired gift for her birthday was $100, which Moraine Court made come true. She also received art supplies, candy bars and homemade gifts from the residents, where she is dearly loved.

So what is her secret to making it to 100 years?

“Everybody asks me that,” Rendell said. “I do a lot of praying. I read my Bible all the time. God is good. His word is a lamp on to our feet and a light unto our path. I love people. I just give them what the Lord told me to say.”

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